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big, easy bites

for love of shrimp

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By Jen White · May 10, 2010 · 0 Comments ·

The oil spill outlook has got us all worried these days.  How will our fishing families adapt?  How will the restaurant industry fare?  It's still too soon to tell.  But plenty of fresh, local seafood is still available right now, at the west bank wharf, in supermarkets, and at farmer's markets.  Paul went last Saturday to the Crescent City Farmer's Market downtown and bought several pounds of gorgeous, perfect shrimp from Clara Gerica of Gerica Seafood.  Her husband, Pete, shrimps in Lake Pontchartrain and sends his evening catch to market with Clara, who says their lake shrimping is unaffected at this point.  So to celebrate that fact, and to celebrate shrimp in general, I concocted a tapas-style menu of two iconic recipes (barbecued shrimp; shrimp and grits (pictured at left)) and one newcomer (the shrimp taco).


I strongly believe that tapas is a style of eating befitting to New Orleans cuisine.  It's basically bar food, having originated in Spanish bars where people used small plates of food to keep flies off of their sherry glasses, and let's face it, we have a few bars here.  Also, there are so many great New Orleans and Louisiana flavors to taste--hundreds of them!--and smaller, tapas-sized servings provide an easier-on-the-stomach way to sample more of those flavors.  And what may be most important is the fact that some of our most delectable dishes are extremely rich with butter, cream, or both, and are best enjoyed in smaller portions.  Case in point:  New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp.
If you've never heard of New Orleans barbecued shrimp, let me explain:  it's not barbecued.  At least, not in the sense that most Americans will consider it barbecued--it's not cooked outside, it's not covered in a tomato-based sauce, it's not skewered.  It is bathed in a spicy, rich sauce, though--of BUTTER.  It's all about the butter, here.  I've read countless recipes for New Orleans barbecued shrimp, and they all have these common ingredients:  head-on shrimp, butter, Worcestershire sauce, rosemary, butter, garlic, black pepper, and butter.  Unless you've just received an "All clear, go ahead and live life with abandon until you're 100" blessing from your G.P., it's probably best to enjoy New Orleans barbecued shrimp in small quantities (hence the tapas).  But by all means, enjoy it.  It's one of those wonderful things in life--you just haven't lived until you've tasted shrimp baked in a butter bath.  And eat at least one piece of French bread dipped in the sauce.  It's just heaven.
I like a strong lemon flavor in the butter sauce, and a little cayenne (the photo shows the shrimp, covered with sauce, about to go in the oven).  Here's how I've been making it:

New Orleans-Style Barbecued Shrimp
  • 1 1/2 pounds head-on, shell-on fresh jumbo shrimp
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter (for reals!)
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary (really mince it, so it's like a powder)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 to 1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper, to taste
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-low heat.
  3. Grate the zest (the outer, yellow peel) off the lemon using the smallest holes of a cheese grater.  Cut the lemon in half and thinly slice one of the halves (no need to remove the seeds).
  4. Add the lemon zest from the entire lemon, the sliced lemon, Worcestershire, rosemary, garlic, and cayenne pepper to the melted butter.  Add salt and black pepper to taste (I use about 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper--some recipes make it even more peppery).  Reduce the heat to low and let everything cook together for about 5 minutes.
  5. Rinse, but don't peel, the shrimp.  Place them in a baking dish, in a single layer if possible.
  6. Pour the butter sauce over the shrimp, stirring a little so it has a chance to seep inside some of the shrimp shells.  Most of the butter will go to the bottom of the dish, which is fine.
  7. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn shrimp over and bake until done.  Depending on the size of the shrimp, this could take 5 to 15 more minutes.  They're done when the head is opaque inside its shell--the head is the densest part of the shrimp and takes the longest to cook.  Keep checking them.
  8. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before attempting to peel and eat them.  Pass some French bread!
Servings: The shrimp we bought were very large, so 1 1/2 pounds gave us about 12 shrimp.  For tapas, this recipe serves 6 people--2 shrimp per person, plus one or two pieces of bread to dip in the sauce--oh, my.
Notes: I always keep the pan in the kitchen and just have people come in there to eat it, standing up, because everyone wants to wash their hands right away.  It is super messy.  To peel, pull the head off with a little twist--if it doesn't come off easily, the shrimp may be underdone.  Then open the shrimp up along the belly side, where the legs are.  Pull all the meat out of the tail shell, and drag your naked shrimp through the butter sauce.  I also like to eat the baked lemon slices.

* * *

Shrimp and grits is one of my favorite dishes to make...and I love to use bacon in it.  Bacon and shrimp have a beautiful relationship.  Bacon's all crispy, smoky, and high in fat, and shrimp's all light, springy, and virtually fat-free.  We all know that opposites attract, and when bacon and shrimp meet, the romance is so high that they elevate each other's star qualities like the perfect couple.  I like to cook the bacon first, then use the drippings to saute the vegetables.  I get a darker sauce from the browned bacon that sticks to the bottom of the pan, and it's rich with that smoky flavor and a big dose of herbs.

I don't cook grits with milk or cream--I just don't see the need.  Chicken broth gives them a ton of flavor, and after a little butter and cheese are added, they really do taste like they've been cooked with cream.  For tapas, I thought it would be nice to have the grits in a compact, square shape.  I poured the finished grits into a wax paper-lined baking pan and chilled them in the fridge for several hours.  When they were cold and firm, I took them out and cut them into 3" squares, kind of like brownies.  I tried frying some of them in bacon drippings--bad idea!  Cold grit cakes added to a hot pan are kind of like little grit volcanoes waiting to spit grits everywhere, and the bacon drippings added a LOT of fuel to that fire.  Plus, I don't think the cakes knew what to do with that extra fat--maybe they should be breaded first?  If anyone knows, please tell me.  I ended up browning the cakes in a dry nonstick skillet, and although there were still a few grits popping out, they turned out pretty well.  You can certainly just serve the grits soft and free-form, though, which is what I usually do.

Shrimp and Spicy Cheese Grits

For the grits:
  • 4 cups chicken broth or stock
  • 1 cup stone-ground grits (I like to use these more rustic, yellow grits, but you can use regular grits and just cook them for a shorter amount of time)
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese with jalapeno peppers
  • few shakes Tabasco sauce
  1. In a medium or large saucepan, bring chicken broth to a boil.
  2. Stir in grits.  Cook and stir for a few minutes, then reduce heat to low, cover, and cook slowly for a total of about 30 minutes.  Check and stir every 5 minutes or so to ensure that they're not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
  3. When the grits are getting creamier and softer (taste a little bit), add the butter, salt, and pepper.  Turn off the heat and add the cheese.  Taste for seasoning, adding Tabasco and more salt or pepper if needed.  You can hold the grits, covered, on the stove for up to an hour--just reheat over low heat, possibly adding a little stock or butter to loosen them up, when it's time to serve.
For the shrimp:
  • 4 slices thick-cut smoked bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • 2 large red (or green) bell peppers, diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms (I used baby portobellos)
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 cup sliced scallions (green and white parts)
  • 2 10-oz. cans diced tomatoes with green chiles, undrained (I use original Ro-Tel)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Tabasco, Worcestershire, cayenne pepper, and salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
  1. Cook the bacon in a large saute or frying pan over medium heat.  When crisp, remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  Reserve 3 tablespoons of drippings in pan (add extra-virgin olive oil if you don't have 3 tablespoons).
  2. Raise heat to medium-high.  Add onion and bell pepper to pan and saute for about 6 minutes, until they begin to soften.  Add garlic, mushrooms, and cooked bacon and saute for about 5 more minutes, stirring.
  3. Add thyme, scallions, and tomatoes, stirring up the browned bits in the bottom of the pan.  Stir in sugar.  Bring sauce to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about 10 minutes, to meld the flavors and concentrate some of the liquid.
  4. Taste sauce, and add salt and pepper to taste (I usually start with a teaspoon of each of these).  If you want more spice than the Ro-Tel tomatoes gave it, add a few shakes of Tabasco or a little cayenne pepper.  Add Worcestershire sauce if it needs a sweeter, smokier flavor--a tablespoon would be good to start.
  5. Add the shrimp to the pan, cover, and simmer the shrimp in the sauce for about 8 minutes, checking and stirring often.  The shrimp are done when they are opaque and curled.
With grits, makes 8 to 10 tapas servings, or 4 main-course servings.

Note:  If you're not serving this right away, leave the shrimp slightly underdone and cover the pan until serving time.  They'll continue to steam in the hot sauce and be just right when you need them.

* * *

In a dedicated effort to offer at least ONE lighter dish, I made shrimp tacos with a maque choux salsa.  Maque choux (say "mock shoe") is a traditional smothered-corn type of side dish said to have been introduced to French and Spanish settlers by Native American tribes, who were great users of corn.  Plenty of maque choux recipes turn the dish into a main course by adding crawfish or shrimp, so I figured a maque choux salsa would work well with a shrimp taco.  I basically just took standard maque choux vegetables (corn, bell pepper, and onion), and didn't cook them, and added jalapeno, cilantro, and some typical salsa ingredients.  The corn was so sweet and tender I didn't even blanch it.

I cut the shrimp in half lengthwise so they wouldn't be so fat inside the little taco shells, but you could also leave them whole.

Shrimp Tacos with Maque Choux Salsa

For the shrimp:
  • 1 1/2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined, and halved lengthwise
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • few shakes Tabasco
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
  1. Combine the shrimp and remaining ingredients in a medium bowl, cover, and marinate in the refrigerator for one to three hours.
  2. When ready to cook, remove shrimp from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature for about 15 minutes.
  3. Heat a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat.  Add shrimp and marinade, and saute for about 10 minutes, stirring, until shrimp are cooked through.
For the salsa:
  • 1 cup sweet corn kernels (cut from 2 ears freshly shucked corn)
  • 1/4 cup minced red onion
  • 1/2 cup sliced scallions (green and white parts)
  • 1/2 cup minced red bell pepper
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, minced (take out seeds for a milder heat)
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • few shakes Tabasco
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • juice of one lime
  1. Combine corn, onion, scallion, bell pepper, jalapeno, olive oil, and vinegar in a medium bowl.
  2. Add Tabasco, cayenne pepper, and a little salt and pepper.  Taste and adjust seasonings.
  3. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours to let flavors meld.  Or, if you don't have time for that, let sit at room temperature for as long as you can.
  4. Just before serving, stir in cilantro and lime juice.  Taste and adjust seasonings again.
For tacos:
  • 16 small corn tortillas (3.5" diameter)
  • optional garnishes: sour cream, shredded lettuce, diced tomato
  1. Heat oven to 350.
  2. Stack tortillas and wrap them in foil, sealing tightly.  Place them in the oven for about 30 minutes to heat through and soften.
  3. Use two tortillas per taco (the outer tortilla is a safety net in case the inner tortilla breaks; some people like to eat both).  Add a few warm shrimp to each taco, top with a couple spoonfuls of salsa, add any additional toppings you like, and eat!
Servings: makes 8 tapas-sized tacos, or 4 normal-sized.


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